Ice cream trucks probably won't be making their rounds for about a month. But the old-fashioned, gooey concoctions we associate with childhood aren't hard to find: They're front and center on dessert menus. If your idea of heaven is a brownie sundae layered with caramel sauce, chunky with nuts, and enveloped with whipped cream, or a fudgy cake topped with a sophisticated version of s'mores, you're in luck. And you don't have to wait for the familiar tinkle of the truck.
Restaurant desserts have always swayed from sophisticated to homey and back to sophisticated. For years now, creme brulee has been the dessert that defies age and changing demographics, though lately panna cotta has been proliferating, and tiramisu is reappearing. But a wave of nostalgia is sweeping the sweet terrain. Some pastry chefs seem to be taking their cues from the old-fashioned drugstore fountain. Others reach right into the candy stash to create desserts that might remind us all of after-school treats.
The philosophy of Jasper White's Summer Shack -- nostalgia for those little places along the coastline -- is all over the down-home menu at his restaurants in Boston, Cambridge, Logan Airport, and Mohegan Sun casino. To carry this informal theme to the end of the meal, White wanted ice cream desserts that were ''fun" and ''related to the shore," says Boston executive chef Brian Flagg. Walk-away sundaes in plastic containers are just like ones you'd get from an ice cream shop window to eat on the way home from a day at the beach, Flagg says. The 100 or so sold daily in Cambridge (slightly fewer in Boston), keep the kitchen staffs busy making hot fudge and caramel sauce. Sometimes summer berries or other seasonal ingredients are used, but the mainstays are the hot chocolate and caramel sauce versions, the chef says.
Brownie sundaes -- and their variations -- may be the most pervasive nostalgia dessert. Ashmont Grill in Dorchester offers one with caramel and chocolate sauce, whipped cream, and praline candy on vanilla bean ice cream. And Josh Heller, chef at Lucky's Lounge in South Boston, says the double-stacked brownie topped with ice cream and house-made hot fudge sauce outsells even another old-time favorite, the root beer float.
Heller has a fondness for the float. ''We use Harpoon root beer and vanilla bean ice cream, and put it in a retro green glass," says the chef. ''It's a real neat glass." The ice cream is scooped on generously, Heller says, and root beer poured over. Then the customer gets the rest of the bottle of root beer to add more as the liquid in the float is sipped. Yet the real crowd-pleaser seems to be the sundae, he says, maybe because ''it's real big," making it enough for two or even more to share.
On its new afternoon tea menu, UpStairs on the Square in Cambridge offers savory bites and tea sandwiches. The tiered tea tray is a showcase for an abundance of gooey goodies, some of which are on the restaurant's other menus. Sometimes there are milk chocolate-dipped praline turtles, little eclairs topped with gold leaf, or ''mini-mini" cupcakes, says co-owner Deborah Hughes. The cupcakes might be fudgy with a maple syrup frosting or takeoffs on Hostess cupcakes filled with mascarpone and topped with fudge frosting. A special peppermint tea includes a peppermint brownie, a mini peppermint ice cream parfait with peppermint-chocolate sauce, peppermint cookies, and wild mint tea. Pastry chef Kate Henry makes ''wonderful ice creams," Hughes says, and that makes the parfaits possible. There's always ''great" hot cocoa, which isn't too sweet and comes topped with house-made marshmallows.
Great desserts sometimes have unusual beginnings. Ron Roy, the pastry chef at Caffe Umbra in the South End, is also a pianist. When he was in a traveling production of ''Forbidden Broadway" near Chicago several years ago, a woman brought a cake and its accompanying sauce from her son's restaurant for the musicians backstage. From that came Roy's sticky toffee pudding, which he put on Umbra's menu one night as a special. Then ''I couldn't take it off," he says.
''It's very sweet and rich, and the combination of hot toffee and cold ice cream -- people just love it." The simple dessert is rather like a brownie sundae. With its pleasing tastes and gooey texture, the dessert is still going strong three years after the pastry chef started making it.
Even fancier desserts play into the nostalgic theme. Baked Alaska, that pinnacle of haute sweet in the middle of the last century, has been adapted by West on Centre in West Roxbury. The mammoth dessert serves up to eight people and contains chocolate and vanilla ice cream, chocolate crumble, and chocolate cake, all covered with toasted meringue. The crumble is like Oreo cookies, explains Julie Weeden, a West manager. The Alaska is made daily, she says, and sells out. Sometimes only three people order it, and then take home the rest, a very sweet version of the doggie bag.
Meringues and their close kin, marshmallows, have long been popular. At the Dunaway House in Portsmouth, N.H., chef Mary Dumont tops a moist chocolate cake with a fluff of toasted marshmallow, a sort of grown-up's idea of s'mores. Sibling Rivalry in the South End has a sophisticated twist on an old Boston classic: Boston cream pie parfait is layered with yellow buttercake laced with Grand Marnier and white chocolate cream. Pastry chef Paige Retus plans to move on soon, but says the gooey dessert will stay. It is popular, she says. ''It's sort of tall," says Retus. ''When it goes by in the dining room, it piques the next diner's interest."
The ultimate transformation from old-fashioned to sophisticated may be the ice cream sandwich devised by Rachel Klein, the chef of the new Om in Harvard Square. Klein sandwiches parsnip ice cream, which is a pale goldeny-green color, between firm slices of carrot cake, then pools caramel sauce infused with habanero chilies around the plate, which is presented with a little marzipan carrot on top. The ice cream has an intriguing flavor, but it's the sauce -- sweet-hot and addictive -- that makes the dessert.
Now if the local ice cream vendor can just get that on his truck.